Why Rome Fell

By Mason, Ian Garrick | The Spectator, August 27, 2005 | Go to article overview

Why Rome Fell


Mason, Ian Garrick, The Spectator


THE FALL OF ROME AND THE END OF CIVILIZATION by Bryan Ward-Perkins OUP, £14.99, pp. 239, ISBN 0192805649 . £12.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE : A NEW HISTORY by Peter Heather Macmillan, £25, pp. 572, ISBN 0333989147 . £23 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

In the decade before his death in 1982, the science-fiction writer Philip K.

Dick was afflicted with a powerful delusion. He became convinced that the Roman empire was still in existence; that despite what was written in all the history books it had in fact never fallen.

Nineteen-seventies California was merely a false projection, a fantasy world concocted to mask the ongoing and malevolent reality of Rome, AD 70.

Modern scholars of late antiquity do not suffer from this delusion. But many of them nonetheless argue that the Roman empire didn't fall -- rather, that it went through a 'transformation' from a Romanled civilisation into a Germanic-led one.

Such a perspective deliberately avoids the temptation to treat the post-Roman successor states as uncivilised, acknowledges the continuity of Roman administrative practices, and gives the barbarians their due for arriving with semi-sophisticated cultures of their own.

Oxford historian Bryan Ward-Perkins, however, feels that these scholars go too far when they describe this process as one of peaceful immigration and accommodation -- as the historian Walter Goffart did in 1980 when he wrote that 'what we call the fall of the Western Roman empire was an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand'. So in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization Ward-Perkins sets out to prove something no schoolchild would have thought to doubt in the first place: that the Roman empire really did fall.

And fell hard. Ward-Perkins deliberately emphasises the violence that attended invasion and collapse: the barbarians abducted farmers, raped nuns, sacked Rome. 'The whole of Gaul smoked on a single funeral pyre', wrote a contemporary poet. What's more, he argues, the collapse of the empire resulted in a sharp economic and cultural decline, as a single complex economic system reaching from Hadrian's Wall to Asia Minor shattered into a myriad of simpler local economies, a process reflected archaeologically, for example, in the shift from centrally manufactured, high-quality Roman pottery to the rougher, weaker, locally crafted pottery of post-Roman Europe. As pottery went, so went other comforts of civilisation: 'With the fall of the empire', he writes, 'art, philosophy, and decent drains all vanished from the West.' Ward-Perkins also takes care to demonstrate that the empire's economic prosperity lasted right up until the end of the 4th century (and well beyond that in the provinces of Asia Minor, as recent discoveries have shown); in so doing, he sets himself in opposition to the grand tradition of 'decline and fall' begun by Edward Gibbon, which has evolved into the modern image of a tottering, depopulated and corrupt empire being gently pushed into retirement by immigrating Germanic tribes. By contrast, Ward-Perkins's is a vigorous and confident empire, smashed to pieces by powerful invaders.

But if the Roman empire of AD 400 was in the prime of its strength, how did the barbarians pull it off? This is the question that Peter Heather, another Oxford historian, sets out to answer in The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History, a fastpaced yet detailed narrative of the 100 years that culminated in 476 with the end of the Western empire and the creation of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy.

What happened, Heather explains, is that the arrival of the militarily dominant Huns in the area north of the Black Sea, and later in the great Hungarian plain, compelled those local barbarians who did not wish to be absorbed into the Hunnic empire to retreat westward across the Rhine and southward across the Danube.

The Eastern empire sent an army to deal with the nearest invaders, but fumbled the job and ended up losing both army and emperor at Hadrianopolis in 378. …

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